For the third time in succession, Pakistan goes to the polls on July 25 to elect both the new parliament (called in Pakistan the National Assembly) and the four provincial assemblies of Punjab, Sind, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP, known to Indian readers more by its previous name, North-West Frontier Province – NWFP).
Considering that for more than half its life as an independent nation, Pakistan has been under four military dictators – Ayub (1958-69); Yahya (1969-71); Zia (1977-88); Musharraf (1999-2008) – and that as many as 15 Prime Ministers have failed to complete their term owing to military or judicial intervention, does the fact that two democratically elected governments, those of the Pakistan People’s Party (2008-13) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (2013- 18), have both completed their terms, respected election outcomes and peacefully transferred power indicate that the Pakistan polity has finally shifted structurally from direct military rule to governance through parliamentary democracy?
Before attempting to answer that fundamental question, let us take stock of how the current elections are being contested.
The two principal rivals are Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI or Pakistan Justice Movement) and the Sharif family’s PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz). In the last 2013 elections, PML-N secured 166 seats in the National Assembly and the PTI only 35, with Bhutto-Zardari’s incumbent PPP slashed to a mere 15 seats and reduced from national to provincial status in Sind alone. Therefore, it should be a cinch for PML-N to again clinch the coming election.
But, as oft, nothing is as it appears in Pakistan. There are at least four factors that might yet result in an upset defeat for PTI/PML-N.
First, Nawaz Sharif and Maryam, his daughter and political heir, have been disqualified by the Pakistan Supreme Court from holding high office, or even contesting elections, now and forevermore. So PML-N will be going into these elections without the face that launched them millions of enthusiastic voters.
Second, in the run-up to the elections, there has been a spectacular thrust into the political arena of religio-political forces that proudly proclaim themselves the “Islam-pasand“. In the past seven decades, these communal wolves in political sheep’s clothing have never received the approval or endorsement of the Pakistan electorate. Thus, the most vicious of them, the most anti-Indian and anti-Hindu Jama’at-e-Islami, has never secured more than two-to-four seats, its vote-share in 2013 having barely topped 2%. The Jamiat ul-Ulama has fared little better.
We in India need to note and understand this. Over seven decades, the Pakistan electorate has consistently demonstrated that while they do indeed find spiritual solace in the clerical order, they reject the ingress of Maulanas, Maulvis and Mullahs into the political order. The pre-Partition Pakistan Movement may have been wholly based on a communal appeal to religious sentiment, and the Pakistan Constitution may have proclaimed Pakistan as an Islamic Republic, but the 97% Muslim electorate have never allowed sectarian religious leaders to prevail at the polls, however influential these forces may have proved on whoever runs the government. Faced with this ineluctable paradox, the traditional Islam-pasandforces have banded together in the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (AMA) under the veteran Maulana Fazlur Rehman of KP, who has served as chairman of the Pakistan Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and shown himself surprisingly friendly to India. Although AMA will take votes from both PTI and PML-N, it is highly unlikely that they will form the government, not only because of the proven Pakistani electoral aversion to parties of this ilk, but also because the AMA potential vote is likely to be eaten into by two new and far more extremist, violence-and-terrorism prone religio-political formations, Hafiz Saeed’s Allah-0-Akbar party (AoA), which is principally Sunni, and the Tehreek-e-Labaik-i-Pakistan (TLP) led by Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi, which is principally Shia.
The Hafiz Saeed party is, however, fielding only 50 candidates, almost all in Punjab province and a handful in KP, and so can only play spoiler in Islam-pasand politics, while TLP, contesting 117 seats, is such a sectarian Shia outfit in an overwhelmingly Sunni electorate that it too can be no more than a spoiler, especially as there is a breakaway faction, TLP-I (for Islami), that will eat into whatever limited appeal the main TLP will have to Shia fractionists.